By Barry Reszel
It’s hard not to like a musical built around, “So last night, a drag queen stole my shrimp” as one of its opening lines that additionally comes off as a long episode of Seinfeld with Jerry and George as playwright and composer.
But that’s just one reason Brown Paper Box Co.’s production of Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen‘s [title of show] is a worthy addition to musical theatre patrons’ summer calendars.
Playing at the intimate Rivendale Theatre, a terrific, young cast of five pulls every last laugh from the quirky autobiographical show centering on two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical. [title of show] was conceived by pals Bell and Bowen in 2002; starred them and their two female friends; ran the festival and off-Broadway circuit; won awards; and played just over 100 Broadway performances in 2008. Plenty more information and history is found here and here.
Director M. William Panek plays Brown Paper Box’s staging perfectly straight—four actors and chairs, no real costuming or props and one terrific keyboard player (and sidekick to the four leads) in Justin Harner. Wonderfully clipped-along comic timing and excellent vocals are what make this production sing.
Matt Frye takes on the role of playwright Hunter with Yando Lopez playing his composer/lyricist pal Jeff. Lady friends Susan and Heidi are played in this production by Neala Barron and Anna Schutz respectively.
They are a formidable ensemble, with Frye and Schultz sparkling on lead vocals and some lovely, precise harmonies from each of the four when they sing a quartet. Musical highlights include the guys’ “Two Nobodies in New York” and “Part of It All;” the gals’ “What Kind of Girl is She;” and the full cast’s version of the show’s most known song, “Nine People’s Favorite Thing.”
But it’s Schutz’s full, gorgeous, belting rendition of “A Way Back to Then,” the show’s soulful penultimate number, that ought to leave Chicago audiences talking. They’ll also be wondering where this talented singer and actress will be performing next.
The only real nit about [title of show] is that it can’t help but come off as contrived and self-serving, because that’s really what it is. Unapologetically so. But for most patrons, it’s also why the show would be better as a 50-minute one act rather than a 90.
Truth is, its cleverness becomes less cute as it moves along. One can’t help but think 30-40 minutes were added solely to get the show into a Broadway theatre. (Hey, it worked!)
And while its Seinfeld-like quality about four people living their lives also works much of the time, these people are not everyman or everywoman; they’re theatre geeks. Thus, [title of show] will be most appreciated by those working in the theatre industry.
So Chicagoland musical theatre participants and patrons, go support Brown Paper Box’s mission and these five talented performers. They deserve it.
Brown Paper Box Co’s “[title of show]” performs Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sunday at 2 pm, through August 16 at Rivendale Theatre, 5779 N. Ridge Ave., Chicago. Tickets are $25 or $15 with headshot, resume or other proof of theatre industry status. More information and tickets are available here.